Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 April - 6 May 2009
Issue No. 945
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The broken legacy of Durban

All in all, the Durban Review Conference did more to weaken the struggle against racism and discrimination than to strengthen it, writes Curtis Doebbler

The Outcome Document is done, the ministers and their advisers have returned home, and international attention is fixed on the financial crisis once again and on breaking news about the outbreak of swine flu. Nevertheless, many diplomats and observers are wondering what one of the most visible human rights conferences in decades actually accomplished.

The Durban Review Conference ("Durban II") was held in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, Geneva, nestled into the foothills of the Swiss Alps. It drew more than 140 countries and a head of state, despite what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the Conference Navi Pillay told The Washington Post was a "highly organised and widespread campaign of disinformation" waged by the friends of Israel against it.

It was a conference Egypt's deputy permanent representative, Ahmed Ihab Gamaleldin, called "the most important human rights conference for African countries" and their "number one priority in human rights". This importance was emphasised by the fact that many states negotiated from their capitals, relegating their diplomats based in Geneva to mere conduits for compromise. And in an unusual race to get a consensus document by the time the conference opened, the Outcome Document was finalised on the basis of the draft prepared by Russian diplomat Yuri Boichenko, who had chaired a pre-conference working group whose task it was to provide a text.

Boichenko, a veteran of the 2001 Durban Conference and its drafting group, not only led the negotiations that started in earnest in April 2008, but also broke a deadlock by synthesising the 55-page text that was being negotiated by states into a 16-page document. When this document was presented on 17 March 2009, just over a month before Durban II opened, it became a careful balance that no state dared to disturb. Boichenko's text became the Outcome Document that was adopted on the second day of Durban II with almost no changes and before most states and any NGOs had even had the chance to speak.

While state delegates that took the floor congratulated the Russian diplomat on carefully steering them to a compromise document, many NGOs lamented the demise of the legacy of Durban that had seen them exercise influence over the Declaration and Programme of Action adopted in 2001 that made renown for its focus on the victims of discrimination. Even UN General Assembly President Father Miguel D'Escoto-Brockmann expressed his "regret that the focus on the victims that was overwhelming at the Durban Conference in 2001 has been diminished."

The real meaning of the Durban Review Conference may, however, lie in what was hidden from view, what was not said, and what was said that was irrelevant to its core objectives. This meaning is on display in the causes and consequences of the international reaction to the new and continuing challenges being faced. To understand this meaning it is important to first put the Durban Review Conference in historical perspective.

The movement against racism and other forms of discrimination is not new. It originated in the anti-slavery movement more than 200 years ago. It was the force behind the decolonisation of Latin America, Asia and Africa. It was the driving force behind the civil rights movement in the United States since the early part of last century. And it is a principle and purpose of the United Nations.

Article 1(2) of the Charter of the United Nations states that a purpose of the world body is to "develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination". To do this, Article 2(1) requires all states to recognise and respect the sovereign equality of each and every state in the international community. This wording emerged, it must be remembered, at a time when many Latin Americans, Africans and Asians were still living as slaves to colonial masters. Nevertheless, the commitment to equality in the UN Charter reflected a moral commitment.

The Charter also included the commitment to human rights. The United Nations Organisation is commanded to promote respect for human rights, including equality of all people, in Article 55 of the Charter. And in the next article member states "pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organisation" to achieve respect for human rights.

The commitment to combating discrimination was reinforced by world conferences against racism in held in 1978 and 1983 in Geneva, and in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. While each had it own brand of controversy, the 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban ended with Israel and the United States walking out because discrimination against the Palestine people was highlighted.

Durban I did, however, achieve a Declaration and Programme of Action that is touted as being the "most victim centred document produced by the UN," according to Theo van Boven, a participant and director of the UN Centre for Human Rights during the first world conference against racism. Nevertheless, its results and prescriptions were overshadowed by the events of 11 September 2001 that occurred just a few days after the Durban conference closed.

There are also legal instruments, such as conventions on genocide from 1948, racial discrimination from 1965, and apartheid from 1973, as well as three successive UN "decades to combat racism and racial discrimination" from 1973-2003. Nevertheless, the Outcome Document adopted last week recognises in its Paragraph 4 that the many "challenges and obstacles" to overcoming racism and other similar forms of discrimination "remain to be addressed".

This view seemed to be shared by the majority of states that like the UN Special Rapporteur on racism and xenophobia pointed out that racism is still "alive and well around the world".

One of the longstanding of obstacles to eradicating racism has been the discriminatory treatment of Palestinians by Israel, which has remained unresolved on the UN's agenda since the organisation was founded. Two successive UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights in Palestine have compared Israel's practices to apartheid.

Although "the plight of the Palestinian people" and their "inalienable right to self-determination" is mentioned prominently in Paragraph 63 of the 2001 Durban Declaration, there is no express mention of Palestinians in the Durban II Outcome Document. This was a significant concession by Palestinian diplomats, who, according to Boichenko, "from the very onset said they would not make the conference hostage to their issue, their pain, their problem".

Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Ihab Gamaleldin echoed this sympathy stating that his country "would have liked to have seen Palestine mentioned", but that the "first priority of the African states at the conference" was to ensure the success of the conference. He went on to praise the Palestinian delegation for having substantially contributed to this success be ensuring that a consensus Outcome Document was adopted.

The Palestinian foreign minister seemed oblivious to the fact that Palestine was not expressly mentioned in the Outcome Document as he delivered a 15-minute condemnation of the racism and racist policies applied against Palestinians, rarely mentioning Israel, instead referring to the "occupying power". His delegation later stated that they "view the Palestinian issue as being mentioned everywhere in the Outcome Document because the first paragraph reaffirms the 2001 Durban Declaration in full".

Palestinian aspirations, however, might have been best expressed by Boichenko who said that their willingness to compromise "will be paid back". Whether this will be the case with a new Israeli government that refused to even come to the conference to discuss issues of racism against the Palestinians remains to be seen.

The absence of 10 countries also illustrated that there are continuing obstacles to eliminating racism and other similar forms of discrimination. These countries -- Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the United States and the Czech Republic -- opted to stay away despite having negotiated a text finalised with significant compromises made to their positions.

Boichenko expressed a widely held sentiment of the more than 140 states that remained at the conference and whom he led to the adoption of the compromise text by regretting the absentee states as acting in a way "unfair to the other partners" with whom they had negotiated. He added: "those who decided to stick with the agreement (the Outcome Document) despite the withdrawal of others ... preserved their honour."

Pakistani Ambassador Zamir Akram used harsher words, describing the states that boycotted Geneva as showing "bad faith" and contributing to achieving the "lowest common denominator" in the Outcome Document instead of something stronger.

Both UN officials, such as High Commissioner Pillay, as well as state delegates repeatedly expressed regret that some states had decided boycott the conference. Both the absence of some European states and the fact that the European Union's representative, the Czech Republic, walked out on the first day has, according to one European official speaking on condition of anonymity, "caused a significant division among European states".

Similar divisions seemed apparent between the US president and some of his staunchest supporters. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), a leading civil rights organisation in the United States that had supported Barack Obama in his winning presidential campaign, sharply criticised him for boycotting the conference. A statement issued by NAACP said that the US's absence "deprives" the conference "of the voice of this administration and its leadership" and "will only undermine efforts to address human rights and civil rights around the world".

Norway was perhaps the most prominent European state that did attend the conference and which supported the Outcome Document. As Norway's Foreign Ministry spokesman Bjorn Svenungsen stressed, his government was "satisfied with the text as it was adopted". When asked what was the greatest accomplishment of the Outcome Document he, like many diplomats, referred to it having been adopted by consensus, not to any particular paragraph or moral commitment.

Except for the fact that the Outcome Document in its first paragraph reaffirmed the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action adopted in 2001, effort is needed to see what the new text adds to efforts to confront racism. An Arab diplomat expressed relief that the Outcome Document had given some attention to combating incitement against religious hatred as well as new forms of racial stereotyping and profiling, while one European diplomat thought it a victory that in the Outcome Document defamation of religion was not mentioned.

Arguably, the most surprising moments of the conference did not involve its substance, but instead matters of form. First, there was the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that broke the consensus of silence by passionately arguing for an end to Israel's discrimination against Palestinians. Ironically, it was when he recognised the suffering of the Jewish people -- although in the context of his condemnation of Israel's racist treatment of Palestinians -- that several European states walked out.

Al-Jazeera later aired evidence that this walk out had been planned for as soon as Palestine was mentioned, and despite the fact, as Boichenko explained, that there had been an agreement that everything mentioned in the original Durban Declaration and Programme of Action could be mentioned again in the Review Conference. According to Boichenko, "clearly some European groups wanted to weaken the Durban message." The staged walk out might have been their last gasp attempt to do that at the conference.

Second, there were a series of outbursts by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and High Commissioner Pillay, both of who publicly criticised the speech of the only head of state to attend the conference, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Neither referred to specific passages in his speech, but merely to the Iranian president's "use of the conference" in a manner that seemed to indicate that these senior UN officials would have preferred if he had not -- indeed, no head of state had -- come to Geneva.

Pakistani Ambassador Akram described the UN officials' outbursts as a "completely unheard of" and "bad precedent". Other diplomats were more sympathetic, referring to them as "unwise", but "a human reaction".

If the only legacy of the Durban Review Conference is to be a few outbursts and a pre-agreed compromise text described as the "lowest common denominator", or at best an "honourable least common denominator", the world's victims of discrimination must be wondering what indeed happened in Geneva last week. It might take some time to figure this out, but do we have the time to wait while the cancer of discrimination spreads? Moreover, is it likely that we can start to adequately address problems like the global financial crisis and even swine flu when we can't treat each other equally?

The writer is an international human rights lawyer and professor of law at An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine.

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